A very personal journey through Jewish history (and Cohen’s own), and a passionate defense of Israel’s legitimacy.
Richard Cohen’s book is part reportage, part memoir—an intimate journey through the history of Europe’s Jews, culminating in the establishment of Israel. A veteran, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, Cohen began this journey as a skeptic, wondering in a national column whether the creation of a Jewish State was “a mistake.”
As he recounts, he delved into his own and Jewish history and fell in love with the story of the Jews and Israel, a twice-promised land—in the Bible by God, and by the world to the remnants of Europe’s Jews. This promise, he writes, was made in atonement not just for the Holocaust, but for the callous indifference that preceded World War II and followed it—and that still threatens.
Cohen’s account is full of stories—from the nineteenth century figures who imagined a Zionist country, including Theodore Herzl, who thought it might resemble Vienna with its cafes and music; to what happened in twentieth century Poland to his own relatives; and to stories of his American boyhood.
Cohen describes his relationship with Israel as a sort of marriage: one does not always get along but one is faithful.
Caveat lector: despite its title, much of this disjointed book is not about the current situation in and future prospects of the country of Israel. Rather, Washington Post columnist Cohen has written a series of short essays about modern European anti-Semitism, pre-Holocaust diplomacy, and the repercussions of the Holocaust, all of which helped shape Israel's founding in 1948 and its history since. Cohen largely reduces Israel's history, and its basis for legitimacy, to these factors, as when he reductively states, "Israel was created not just in reaction to anti-Semitism but by anti-Semitism." More seriously, Cohen's prose sometimes assumes too much knowledge on the part of his readers rather than making his argument clear, leading to possibly confusing, even contradictory, analyses, as when he notes that the Jews "foisted the nakba (the Palestinian term meaning "catastrophe" for the exile wrought by the 1948 war following Israel's independence) on the Palestinians, but then states on the same page that "the driver of events was... the Arabs." He also calls Israel the product of "mistakes of time and place a last-gasp colonial enterprise... the settlement of an alien people in the midst of the Islamic world," leading readers to wonder whether the title should be "Should Israel Survive?" Cohen's writing is too muddled about whether it deserves to do so.
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This is a brilliant book that expresses the frustration and angst of diaspora Jews regarding the State of Israel. How sad, yet understandable, is watching the abused becoming the abuser, the victim becoming the victimizer. This book is written with flair and style and should be read by anyone wishing to understand the conflict from a liberal perspective .